Bikini FeministsSerena Lehman
Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture By Ariel Levy Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2005, 240p, $25
Do shows like "Girls Gone Wild," gyms offering Cardio Striptease classes, and the bestselling books by former porn stars indicate that we are living in a highly sexed cultural moment? New York magazine writer Ariel Levy thinks so. In her passionate polemic, Female Chauvinist Pigs, Levy argues that despite talk of the political influence of the conservative right and the rise of Evangelical Christianity, “raunch” culture saturates mainstream society: soft-porn magazines like Maxim feature “greased celebrities in little scraps of fabric humping the floor;” trendy women wear low-rise jeans that expose butt cleavage and snug little tees that scream “PORN STAR;” a video of Paris Hilton having sex with her boyfriend transforms an heiress into a celebrity overnight. To her great surprise, Levy discovers that even her own presumably smart, educated friends enjoy the once exclusively male domain of strip clubs with female strippers.
What disturbs Levy most about these trends is the participation of women who happily and proudly “make sex objects of other women and of ourselves.” She brands this new breed of women "Female Chauvinist Pigs" (FCP). A FCP acts like a man in her pursuit of power in a male-dominated world and thinks it is hip, even liberating, to embrace representations of women that feminists in the 1960s would have found degrading. “She is post-feminist. She is funny. She gets it. She doesn't mind cartoonish stereotypes of female sexuality, and she doesn't mind a cartoonishly macho response to them.”
“She” is like Sheila Nevins, an accomplished HBO producer of films on the Holocaust and war orphans, who doesn't mind also promoting "G-String Divas," a documentary in which strippers discuss their work and personal sex lives.
Addressing this paradox and others, Levy situates the emergence of FCPs in feminist history and testifies to a backlash against the politically correct environment of the past. She notes that while FCPs may seek female empowerment, their misguided methods have derailed the progress made during the Women's Liberation Movement and the sexual revolution in the 1970s when figures like Gloria Steinem fought against pornography and the objectification of women.
Moreover, Levy forces the reader to consider the fate of teens maturing in a schizophrenic society that exalts sexiness and advocates abstinence. She protests that FCPs must stop deluding themselves: “‘Raunch' and ‘liberated' are not synonyms.” In other words, the unsexy and unfashionable activism of the past must be resurrected, and the old saw rufurbished: female power remains achievable only when society treats a woman as an individual with a brain, not just a body.
Certainly Levy's cultural observations illuminate the unfinished work of and the tensions within the feminist movement, but the worth of FCP, as a term of cultural criticism, is less clear. Levy could be more precise in distinguishing between women who act raunchy versus those that promote raunchy shows or trends. After all, their motivations and status in society significantly differ. For example, we may be amused by Paris Hilton's exploits and, yes, some young girls may seek to emulate her, but whether she is revered or mocked is debatable. Likewise, Sheila Nevins may produce "G-String Divas," but she isn't dressing like a stripper. Nor is she acting like one. She is a highly respected executive in television and film—a field with proportionately few female leaders.
To fit her thesis, Levy ignores how producers of a show like "G-String Divas" could actually seek to humanize (rather than objectify) these women by giving them a forum to talk instead of perform.
To be clear, I too am troubled by media representations of female sexuality today and worry about its influence on developing teenagers. But these concerns plague every generation, and do not justify Levy's hostility to raunch culture. Judging from the media, it does appear all women are dressing in a certain way or buying into a certain image of femininity. But based on the representations in the media, one may also presume that all black Americans act alike or share the same ethnicity (see Black Image in the White Mind by Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki). From such a narrow sampling can we honestly conclude that most American women are in the barnyard as a FCP?
Levy's investigative reporting was heavily focused on Manhattan and a few other metropolitan centers like Miami, where "Girls Gone Wild" is predominantly shot, and Chicago, where Playboy has its offices. As such, there is a tautological quality to the work. What would Levy have found had she ventured to other regions of the country and interviewed people not dressing like Pamela Anderson?
Without such research, the book grants television and magazines too much power in reflecting the social milieu today. (As any New Yorker who tuned in to HBO's "Sex and the City" knows, the show captured as much fantasy as truth in its depiction of Carrie Bradshaw's life in Manhattan.) It is true that representations in the media condition our response to the world, but so do teachers, mothers, and coaches that we befriend throughout our lives. None of these potential role models are given much weight in Levy's text as a counter-force to the FCP.
Ultimately, the crucial element missing in Levy's argument is media sensationalism, a trend that her own New York magazine often perpetuates with its provocative front cover articles like “Man-Hunting with the High School Dream Girls.” Such overblown headlines may seek to draw attention to a disturbing issue—the above refers to underage teenage girls drinking at clubs and picking up older men—but it simultaneously glamorizes its subject and exaggerates its cultural impact. Similarly, what was deemed shocking in 1950 no longer elicits the same fascination today, fueling the demand for increasingly lurid and exhibitionist displays of female sexuality on television, billboards, and the streets.
Sexy will always sell. This is a common cliche evidently indulged by Levy's publisher, to judge by the buxom "Mud Flap" girl in silhouette on the book's hot pink jacket cover. This is understandably an effort to attract readers to spread its message, but still infuriating given the book's feminist agenda and condemnation of raunch culture!
Equality between the sexes is far from achieved in contemporary America, as Levy's analysis highlights. But, more importantly, Levy reminds us that women, however conflicted, play an active part in perpetuating stereotypes and social restraints that have previously been blamed on the residue of patriarchal society.
It seems unlikely that there will ever be a shared vision among women as to what their relationship with men and sex ought to be. Levy herself acknowledges that for “some” women, pole-stripping might be a true expression of identity. Nonetheless, her critique implies that there are more and less appropriate ways for women to act or dress and, if not already obvious, FCPs embody the least desirable end of the scale.
Illustrating the possible consequences of certain women's behavior is all well and good—a stimulating read at least. But if women truly seek gender equality and female empowerment, we might do well to spend less time excoriating the behavior of our own sex, and more time owning the confidence to navigate a world in which there will always be a spectrum of lives to live and no one ideal to guide us.
Serena Lehman is CJAS's article and review editor, and a graduate student of American studies at Columbia University.